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Ambition drives Tribe track star Cleek to ever greater heights

Tanner Cook • Apr 14, 2020 at 10:00 AM

KINGSPORT — Dobyns-Bennett senior Samuel Cleek loves being a high flier.

Cleek, coming off a standout indoor track and field season in which he won gold and bronze medals at the state championships in February, was poised to challenge his school’s high jump record — a mark that has stood since 1984.

Then his season was put on hold because of the novel coronavirus outbreak.

“I was one of those people that really didn’t like heights when I started jumping, but I do like that sinking feeling in my stomach now when I’m doing jumping events,” Cleek said. “It is more for those thrill-seeking kinds of people and I’m definitely one of them and I like the adrenaline rush.”

Cleek smashed one school record in December during the indoor season when he made a successful leap of 14-9 in the pole vault at Liberty. The jump put his name above that of Brandon Lawson, who had held the record of 14-6 since 2007.

Cleek went on to a third-place state finish after clearing 14-3¾.

He also came within an inch of tying Dobyns-Bennett’s high jump record of 6-10, which Bobby Hill set in 1984.

Cleek doesn’t just like soaring off the ground, though. The variety and range of events in which he can succeed naturally drew him to the decathlon.


A grueling series of races and competitions over the course of two days, the decathlon dates to ancient Greece and the first Olympics when the winner of the event earned the title of “world’s greatest athlete.”

Normally based on a points system involving a series of complicated equations that heavily favor running events over throwing events, the decathlon winner is determined by total points.

“I honestly didn’t know what I was doing, training-wise, last year when I did the decathlon,” Cleek noted. “I hadn’t run more than a lap around the track since my freshman year and I practiced hurdling once over two hurdles.”

Cleek competed in the decathlon last spring in the TSSAA outdoor meet and finished seventh, totaling 5,331 points and netting an all-state finish. Tanner Henry, his teammate who is now at Wofford, placed fourth with 5,713 points.

“I really kind of wanted to focus more on the high jump and pole vault this year — plus I had really bad shin splints — so I decided that I wanted to give up training for the decathlon to get better at the jumps,” Cleek said.


Before the start of the indoor season, Cleek’s personal best in the high jump was 6-5½. Within a span of mere months, he had reset his best three times.

His current best — 6-9 — is the leap that earned him the indoor state championship in the event.

“I think a few factors that led to getting three personal bests in the span of four months were that I gave up soda, which was really hard for me to do, and I tightened my approach to the bar by about 2 feet,” he said. “Weightlifting had a lot to do with it, too. I was able to get into the weight room and really focus on strengthening those muscles I use when I jump.”

That left him an inch off Hill’s longstanding mark, but for now, one school record is enough — especially at a place like D-B. But to possibly hold multiple records or at least be tied for a second, that’s worth being mentioned as one of the best athletes ever at the school.

“I actually tried 6-10.5 a few times in practice and got over it,” Cleek said. “I hope I can still get the opportunity to get that record this year. I think I could get it and maybe give 6-11 a try.”


Anyone probably could pick Cleek out of the crowd thanks to his terrific head of hair.

“I haven’t had a haircut in almost three years,” he said. “It was originally a bet I made with a few of my friends that if I grew my hair out, they’d give me like $10. I did and I’m really just kind of afraid to cut it now.”

But does his flowing mane actually affect his performance in field events?

“I think it’s more of a Sampson effect, honestly,” Cleek said. “The last time I straightened it in the fall, it was like a foot past my chin. It really doesn’t look like it’s grown in the past few months, but it does grow because the curls get tighter and tighter.”


Cleek recently committed to continue his athletic and academic career at Carson-Newman.

“I’m pretty set on going into coaching. I want to do an exercise science major and then go into a graduate assistant position my senior year,” he said.

The Eagles have had good high jumpers in recent years, among them five-time NCAA Division II All-American and former indoor national champion Tanner Stepp. Stepp was coached by his older brother Tyler, who will start his seventh season in 2021. Tyler was a

second-team All-American in the high jump when he competed for East Tennessee State.

“I really like Coach Stepp’s philosophy and he definitely has the credentials of being a very good coach,” Cleek said. “When I cleared 6-9, I kind of had to reassess my goals. Clearing 7 feet was a lifetime goal at first, but now it might be a goal that’s there in the near future. ... I know going into Carson-Newman next year that it is a process and I won't be able to go in and be the best. I completely understand that.”

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